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The Seatbelt is 60 Years old

The Seatbelt is 60 Years old


Motoring journalist, John Swift celebrates 60 years of the life-saving seatbelt.

At least a million people and their families have reason to give thanks to a Swedish engineer who 60 years ago invented something that arguably has done more for road safety than any other single item - the three-point seatbelt.

Nils Bohlin had been working on ejector seats for jet fighters, but in 1958 was recruited by Volvo as its safety engineer and his first task was to look at seatbelts.

Restraints themselves were nothing new, but some were just straps across the lap, others were prone to damage internal organs and none were very effective at protecting their users from injury in the event of a sudden stop.

Bohlin took a completely fresh look at how to stop people from being thrown around during heavy deceleration or in an impact. He found that a simple lap-strap created a high risk of the torso and upper body including the vulnerable head, hinging forwards at the pelvis - with an obvious risk of injury if it hit a hard point such as the windscreen or dashboard.

A strap across the chest would prevent that, but the legs and hips shooting forwards might easily drag the rest of the body underneath it.

boy clicking their seatbelt in

By 1959 his solution was to combine both elements, with the lap and chest seatbelts we know today, anchored at three points on the car’s structure. It proved so effective that Volvo fitted it as standard in all its cars and more significantly made a present of it to the world, making the patent available to other car manufacturers, so that every driver and passenger might benefit from it.

No one will ever know for certain, but the figure usually given by auto engineers is that at least one million people since have been saved by Bohlin’s invention and Volvo’s generosity.

But fitting a seat belt in a vehicle is one thing, using it is another. It was not until 1983 that it became compulsory in the UK for front seat occupants to wear one, with a legal extension covering those in the back seats following in 1991.

And yet last year the Department for Transport released data showing that of the 787 people killed in a car in 2017 more than a quarter, 27%, were not strapped in…

The three-point seat belt is of huge significance and arguably the single most important safety component in a vehicle, but there have been many other developments in the years since even if it’s surprising how long it took for some to be used.

For example, anti-lock brakes which keep the wheels turning and slowing even when the driver demands too much stopping power from the tyres were designed for aircraft as far back as the 1930s. They appeared on some top end cars in the 1970s and were standard in many from the ‘80s yet it took until 2004 for them to become mandatory on all new cars sold in the EU.

The arrival of airbags was another significant development in the journey of keeping occupants safe. They’re triggered by sensors detecting collision forces and a small gas cannister inflates them but the bag begins to deflate as the gas escapes through small perforations before any part of the body contacts it otherwise it would be like hitting a solid object.

NCAP airbag testing

You can’t see an airbag inflate, it is far too fast for the human eye to catch, but you would hear the bang of it inflating and feel the pressure spike as the air inside the car is compressed by the bags – which are in the steering wheel or glove box to protect the chest, in the wide window pillars to protect the head and even where your knees and lower legs are – which squeeze it into a smaller area.

Seatbelts, airbags and several other systems are usually referred to as `passive’ devices, technology which protects people during a crash. The area of growing development is in `active’ ones, technology which keeps a collision from happening in the first place.

At the basic level, modern cars will have traction control which stops the driven wheels from spinning on a slippery road. They are built with ESP - electronic stability programmes – which go a long way to preventing a skid if the driver overcooks it on a bend and increasingly, AEB – autonomous emergency braking – which activates the brakes even if the driver doesn’t, when sensors know the gap between the car and an obstacle ahead is closing too fast for safety. That could be a pedestrian stepping out from a pavement or an animal darting out from a hedge.

The car industry and legislators working in the automotive sector have a bigger goal though and are working towards the `zero/zero’ target where cars emit zero pollution at the point of use – electric vehicles in other words – and where zero people are killed in or by a vehicle.

Of the two the first is probably the easier to achieve and certainly the industry is making huge strides in that direction. For the other, well, the day will come when that is a reality, but not for a while yet.

In the meantime, we should recognise the achievements of Swedish engineer Nils Bohlin and the generosity and social responsibility of Volvo who together made our roads much safer places.


Significant safety improvements

  • Airbags
  • Anti-lock brakes (ABS)
  • Automatic Emergency Brakes (AEB)
  • Collapsible steering column
  • Electronic Stability Programme (ESP)
  • Euro NCAP crash safety measurement test programme (1996)
  • Laminated windscreens
  • Introduction of MOT (1960)
  • Run-flat tyres
  • Seat belt pre-tensioners